Act One: Threatened Characters Make Mistakes (NaNoWriMo Week 2)


Toy Story and its characters are owned by Pixar

Two weeks ago I shared my tips for Speed-Writing Your First Draft. Last week I talked about the five building blocks of a story as well as the three elements of scene. In the weeks to follow, I’ll give you some benchmarks and plot ideas to keep you from getting stuck.

If you haven’t read last week’s post about goals, conflict, the 12 types of antagonists, and sequels, go do so now. Today I’ll build upon those, so even if you have read it, you might want to skim through it again.

Overarching Goal = Passion or Fear

Another way to think of your character’s overarching goal is to consider what they’re passionate about. Remember, a character’s goal is what drives them. Something they only feel lukewarm about isn’t going to compel them to keep going to the end of the story.

This passion needs to be established early on.

If you’re not sure what your character is passionate about, consider what they’re most afraid of.

Consider Toy Story. Woody is afraid of being replaced as Andy’s favorite toy. But he’s not just passionate about being Andy’s toy, he’s passionate about his position as Head Toy. When Woody is Andy’s favorite toy, all the other toys look to him for guidance and reassurance.

Enter Buzz Lightyear, the coolest toy ever. Now Woody has a story, he has conflict, he has something that will change his current life and force him to make decisions.

The inciting incident is a Change which introduces fear or risks passion. 


When your main character experiences this initial change, he or she is going to react. In my 8 C’s of plotting, I go into more detail about the reaction, so I’ll stick to the Toy Story example here.

Buzz arrives in Woody’s spot, and Woody tells him so. Buzz meets all the other toys, who are very impressed by him and compare him to Woody:

BUZZ pushes his button. “Buzz Lightyear to the rescue!”

The toys all GASP IN AWE.

Hey, Woody’s got something like that.
His is a pullstring, only it—

Only it sounds like a car ran over it.

Buzz is delusional and thinks he’s not a toy but an actual space ranger. Woody is the only one who seems to notice this, driving a further wedge between him and the other toys. Even Woody’s girlfriend wants Buzz to be her “moving buddy.”

A montage shows Andy favoring Buzz and replacing all his cowboy-themed (Woody) decor with space-themed (Buzz) decor. Another montage shows all of the toys who once idolized Woody now enamored with Buzz.

Then Andy has to choose between the two toys, and he picks Buzz. Woody has been replaced.

Woody has had it. He confronts Buzz, calling him a phony and shoving him. Their altercation is interrupted by Sid blowing up a toy in the yard next door. (Now this scene is a Chekhov’s Gun. If you’ve planned your story ahead of time, you will include all the factors at play during the ending within your first act. If you discover your story as you write, you’ll go back during revisions and plant foreshadowing.) After Sid shows us the worst possible outcome for a toy, Bo Peep reminds everyone that they are moving away (more foreshadowing).


Next we have the Complication/Campaign. This step has a two-part name because it often starts with a complication and ends with the need for a new campaign or journey, which leads into Act Two. In a character-driven story like this, the complication:

  • is a bad decision, mistake, or accident
  • which grows out of the Reaction
  • and ends unfortunately,
  • resulting in the need to make new plans—the “campaign” of Act Two.

(See my 8 C’s post for other types and examples of reaction and complication, using the examples of The Fugitive, The Lion King, and The Hunger Games.)

In Toy Story, Woody actively but inadvertently causes his complication, which has its own mini-plot:

  1. Inciting incident: Andy’s Mom tells him he can bring one toy to the pizza restaurant—only one.
  2. Beginning: Woody is hopeful. He shakes the Magic 8 Ball asking if he’ll be picked. The 8 Ball says “Don’t count on it.” Woody throws the ball, which falls down behind the desk.
  3. Middle Part 1: Woody tells Buzz there’s a toy in trouble. He drives an RC car into Buzz to knock him behind the desk, but Buzz dives out of the way. There’s a chain reaction of bumps and knocks, which gets all the other toys’ attention, and
  4. Midpoint: Buzz is knocked out the window.
  5. Middle Part 2: Everyone reacts, including Woody, who didn’t mean for Buzz to fall out the window. The RC car tells the toys Woody did it on purpose, and the toys turn on him. Andy comes in, finding only Woody, and brings him into the van to the pizza restaurant.
  6. Ending: Buzz jumps out of a bush and onto the van. At the gas station, he confronts Woody. They fight, flying out of the car. They’re still fighting when Andy and his mom get back into the van. The van drives off, leaving Woody and Buzz at the gas station.

The Complication ends Act One and introduces the campaign or “ocean” of Act Two, which I’ll talk about next week! If you can’t wait that long, listen to this Paperwings Podcast on the subject.

Writing Act One

Ask yourself what your character’s immediate desire and greatest fear are.

In Tangled, Rapunzel’s passion is to see the floating lanterns. Her greatest fear is abandonment. If abandonment is her greatest fear, then her ultimate goal is to feel like she belongs in a loving family. See the 8 C’s of Tangled here.

Write your character’s fear and desire on a note and post it in your writing space. Refer to it every time you start writing. If you already know your character’s greatest desire or ultimate goal, write that down, too. Otherwise write it down as soon as you discover it.

Ask “What if…?”

Remember the 12 different types of antagonists. What kind of antagonist will introduce your character’s fear to the audience or reader during the inciting incident?

How can other types of antagonists drive your character to make the mistake that causes the Complication?

What impossible situation will your character find himself in—the “Ocean” of Act Two? How can you get your character there?

Moving On

Chances are, you have an idea of your character’s campaign or “ocean” when you write the Change.

The Change, or “inciting incident,” is what gives you a story. A character starts off with a sense of stability, something rocks the normalcy boat, and the protagonist is thrown into a sea of chaos. The boat gets shattered by a giant squid, the protagonist can’t swim, there are sharks in the water, and your guy floats on flotsam and jetsam until he gets to shore, where he finds a new stability. He kisses the sand, and the camera fades to black. —The 8 C’s of Plotting (underlined section suggests the “ocean” of Act Two)

If you’re already writing the ocean, consider what Preparation your character needs in order to survive the ocean and overcome her fear to achieve her greatest desire. What Problems will come her way? How can she win a small victory?

Next post: Act Two.

How to write scenes (NaNoWriMo Week 1)

Last week I shared my tips for Speed-Writing Your First Draft. Yesterday I talked about the five building blocks of a story. Today I’m giving you three elements of scene. In the weeks to follow, I’ll give you some benchmarks and plot ideas to keep you from getting stuck.

Every scene needs a goal (the beginning), conflict (the middle), and sequel (the end).


Your character needs to have overarching goals to push the story forward (download my free goal and backstory worksheet). At the midpoint, he or she will adapt, change, or redirect the Big Goal.

But each scene needs to have a minor goal, a step-stone goal.

These goals need to be external and active to drive the story forward and keep the reader reading.

Introspection is neither external nor active; it’s internal and passive. It belongs at the end of each scene.

Running away from something requires movement and action. However, it’s still passive. Pair it with another, active goal. The character needs to run away from a threat while also running toward something else, or while needing to protect someone else.

The longer your story is, the more of these stepping-stone goals you’ll need.


Conflict is the reason your character has to keep making all of these smaller goals.

Harry Potter wants to defeat Voldemort (external goal) and to have a family of his own (ultimate goal and motivation). So he needs to learn Defense of the Dark Arts. Unfortunately, the Defense of the Dark Arts professors…(this changes per book.)

Ways to come up with new conflicts for each scene

  • Use a template like the above. Main character wants _____, so MC must [scene goal]. Unfortunately, [conflict].
  • Ask yourself, “Wouldn’t it really suck right now if _______?”
  • Someone or something needs to get in the way of your MC’s goal. Pick from the following list.

Types of antagonists

  1. Self—the character’s own fears, problems, or past
  2. Family
  3. Friends
  4. Love interest
  5. Forces of nature
  6. Creatures—e.g. real or fantastical
  7. Society/Circles—e.g. your MC’s neighbors, co-workers, boss, fellow citizens
  8. Establishment—e.g. religion, government, political party, school
  9. Technology
  10. Objects or obstacles
  11. Supernatural or paranormal forces—e.g. fate, gods, or ghosts
  12. Nemeses, villains or bullies

Each move your MC and antagonists make drive the scene.


Sequel is the MC’s reaction to an antagonist’s move.

This is where your character gets introspective, faces a dilemma, makes a decision, or learns something new. This is where you can include that passivity.

Knowing your genre will tell you how much time to spend in the sequel. Beta readers and editors will tell you how much is too much.

Think of conflict, goals, and action as pedaling a bike. Sequel is coasting. If your story is going downhill, you’ll coast more than pedaling. Tragedy will include more sequel. The gloom period of your novel (in Act Two, after the Midpoint) will also include more sequel than the Preparation and Problems section.

Ending your scenes

Summary isn’t scene. You can summarize actions of the character over time or location in a paragraph or sentence—in fact, you’ll do that with your entire book when crafting a synopsis—but that doesn’t constitute a scene break.

An example of summary, from the first chapter of The Hunger Games:

We make out well. The predators ignore us on a day when easier, tastier prey abounds. By late morning, we have a dozen fish, a bag of greens and, best of all, a gallon of strawberries. I found the patch a few weeks ago, but Gale had the idea to string up mesh nets around it to keep out the animals.

On the way home, we swing by the Hob, the black market that operates in an abandoned warehouse that once held coal. When they came up with a more efficient system that transported the coal directly from the mines to the trains, the Hob gradually took over the space.

The first twenty pages of The Hunger Games spans places and hours, but Collins doesn’t include a scene break* until the end of the chapter. She finally ends the chapter with a reversal.

A reversal is whenever the direction of your scene changes. If the projection of your book is positive, the overall movement of scene progression will be positive, and reversals will be negative. If you’re writing a tragedy, reversals are positive.

In Chapter One, we have a foreboding sense that The Reaping is going to be an unfortunate event, but Katniss’s progress through the scene is fairly positive.

Then Prim, her sister, is picked to be tribute.

End of chapter.

Include a scene break* whenever your character is going to chase a new stepping-stone goal in a new place or after time has passed.

*an extra line break at the end of the final paragraph, denoted with a # in manuscript format

End your chapter after a new problem or antagonist move, but before the sequel. The reader will start the next chapter to find out the character’s reaction. That’s what a cliffhanger is—an ending that begs for sequel.

The Hunger Games’ first chapter ends with the inciting incident. When Prim gets picked, the chapter ends. Chapter Two starts with Katniss’ reaction. Then her sequel ends, and she acts:

But the scene doesn’t stop there. Peeta is picked. Then Katniss reacts to that. Chapter Two ends referring to a Capital-imposed dilemma that won’t be solved until the end: Would she kill Peeta to save herself? We keep reading until Collins will answer, will sequel, that question.

What will keep your reader reading? Think about that question while writing and revising your story.


Speed-Writing Your First Draft: 5 Quick Tips

What’s the one thing that makes us write slowly or stop writing completely?


Fear of inexperience, fear of failure, fear of imperfection. Yet we know that to get better, we have to write.

To get a perfect draft, we need to edit, and you can’t edit a blank page!

How do you get past the fear and write quickly? Follow these five tips.

1. Get rid of distractions.

Turn off the TV and your internet (I use Anti-Social to block distracting websites).

Go somewhere where you can be either alone or undisturbed.

Be conscious about other distractions. If easily stimulated, write uncomfortably. You’ll write quickly to get it over with! I’ve written pages in the garage, crammed into the passenger seat of my car with my laptop.

Consider writing your first draft longhand! Writing by hand forces you to focus on the pen and the page. To write faster than Bilbo, however, read on.


2. Write recklessly.

Make adventure, discovery, and creation your goal. Be brave and take risks.

If you need a plan before you jump in, guns blazing, my 8 C’s plotting method demystifies structure while giving you plenty of freedom.

Remember the character + conflict formula for dramatic storytelling. Write as if your characters are in a video game. Ask yourself “What if ______?” and “What’s the worst possible thing that could happen right now?” Then write it.

3. Embrace the suck.

Go for speed rather than going for “good.” Writing quickly is about quantity, not quality. Save the slow, quality writing for revision. Pull a Buzz Lightyear—sure, this first draft won’t fly, but it can fall with style!


4. Don’t edit! 

Major editing before knowing your three acts and your theme is a waste of time—you won’t know what to cut, what to keep, and what to change.

If you have to, darken/invert the screen, type in white or pale gray, or type across the room with a wireless keyboard so you can’t read what you’re typing.

If you MUST fix errors, don’t dare edit until your scene is done! After you’ve finished the scene/chapter/book, you can go back and fix problems.

5. Just. Keep. Writing.

Write past the typos, the weirdness, the words-to-look-up.

Sure, switch tenses or points of view while drafting. Doing so helps you find your novel’s most natural voice! Revise later, once you’ve decided what works best for the whole story.

Make notes and comments in-text so you don’t lose your train of thought. I use three slashes (///) before and after these notes so I can find them easily while revising. Example:


(The fact that I didn’t fix “comepletely” is a true testament to my strong will.)

If you don’t know a word or fact, type TK—it means “to come,” but the “TK” combination isn’t found in common English words, so your find/replace function will filter out other words.

Do you have any other tips for writing quickly or recklessly? Share them in the comments!


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Becoming a Fan Favorite: Writing Description and Direction

In today’s post, I talk about stage directions in fiction, writing natural descriptions, why some books are constantly reread by readers, and, to an extent, immortality.

Orderly Description

Ever played that “blind drawing” party game? You close your eyes or put a piece of paper on your head and someone gives you direction upon direction to cram into one picture?

Here’s an example for the party planning website Sophie’s World (which, consequently, is the title of one of my favorite books):

“I’d like you to draw the outline of a house. Just a simple little house, right in the middle of the page… Now, beside the house I’d like you to add a tree, a medium sized tree, not too big, not too small… Oh, I forgot! You need a front door on your house. Please draw a front door so that the people can come in and out easily… Oh, did I tell you there are apples in your tree? Draw a few apples, maybe 5 or 6, in your tree now… And don’t forget the windows in the house! I think two would be nice… Did I remind you to draw a chimney? Let’s put a chimney on the house, with some smoke coming out the top… Oh, and look! There’s a dog in the yard… And a picket fence… And of course there’s a family…”

This is the kind of experience a reader has when you describe something in an unnatural order:

blind drawing
It’s also what it’s like when description is given out of order. When describing a scene, consider camera shots.

Zoom in from broad descriptions, ending on one specific detail. Or zoom out, starting on a detail and working your way out to observing the whole. Pan in one direction. Going in an unnatural order gives the nauseating effect of “shaky cam.”

Adding details too late, after the reader has already created the image in his or her mind, gives what I like to call the “awkward goat” effect.

Writer: “I went to give the goat a kiss. Then the other goat—”
Reader: “Wait, there’s another goat?”
Goat: “SURPRISE! I’ve been here the whole time!” (maniacal goat bleating)

While this is used effectively in visual comedy, redirection doesn’t really work in fiction.

Overcomplicated Stage Directions

Another problem of ineffective description is overcomplicated stage directions. I see sentences like this all the time in unpublished manuscripts:

“Come with me,” Jorge said and turned around while kissing my hand as we ran away together.

Though these are most often found in dialogue tags, I see overcomplicated stage directions all over. That sentence above is just one I made up, but let’s rewrite it so it doesn’t seem like “he” is doing a hundred things at once.

First, find the perps: “and,” “as,” and “while.” The two latter words can often be cut in stage directions. The former is a fine word that sometimes gets overused. Let’s focus on no more than two actions at once.

Said + turned, kissing + ran

“Come with me,” he said, turning around. He kissed my hand, inviting me to run away with him.

Let’s also apply what we just learned about orderly directions, and cut the unnecessary dialogue tag.

Jorge turned around. “Come with me.” He kissed my hand, inviting me to run away with him.

What did I just do? I took advantage of my friend the progressive verb.

A progressive verb is a verb ending in -ing. That ending tells us that the -ing verb is happening while something else is going on, while letting us cut the “while” or “as.”

“While” and “as” aren’t bad words. It’s not about the word, it’s how you use it. By all means, use “as” to make a simile (e.g., “as [adjective] as a [noun]”). “While” is an innocent preposition until proven guilty. The problem is using them to show more than one thing happening concurrently. Show me a manuscript which uses “while” or “as” in the first page in stage directions, and there’s a big chance that same construction will keep showing up over the next ten pages.

Doing a find/replace search for all instances of “as I,” “as we,” “as she,” “as he”  (depending on your POV), repeating the search with “while,” will help you see if you’re going overboard. Also be on the look-out for “then” and “before,” more signs of wordiness and or disorderly directions.

Use them a few times, and that’s fine. Do it a few times per page—or worse, per paragraph—and you’re just being unnecessarily wordy. Gone are the days when novelists are paid by the word.

The Divine Detail

Remember, your novel has to compete with online, in-demand television and movies. You need to keep your reader’s attention. That doesn’t mean your novel needs explosions or murders every other chapter; it means your prose needs to be immediate and precise rather than longwinded and wordy. You want to be Robin Williams giving his Seize the Day speech, not Ben Stein droning about economics. The difference isn’t just subject, it’s diction. Do diction right, and you’ll engage readers that otherwise don’t care one iota about your subject. That is, until they start reading your book.

When describing, choose one or two vivid details, referred to by editors as “divine details” that can set the scene or characterize, and let the reader fill in the rest of the image. Compare the chaos of the drawing above (ain’t I an artiste?) with expansion drawings done by children:


Image via ArtMommie. Click for more images.

When the reader is allowed to contribute, your work takes on a new form. It evolves in the readers’ individual minds. It’s a spark which they build upon to create a conflagration.

Letting the Reader In

It doesn’t matter how brilliant of a writer you are—writing and reading are collaborative efforts, and that collaborative effort will bring more life and beauty to your work than you could hope to do by yourself.

Sometimes we write because we’re control freaks. We are the masters of the universe, and we will plot and plan and tell our characters exactly what they should do. But when we let our characters breathe and give them freedom, when we let the reader have some creative liberty, our work takes on a life of its own.

Maybe that’s a cliche, but if you want your work to live on after you’re gone, you need to let your reader experience your world naturally. You need to let them read between the lines and contribute to the meaning and world of your fiction. When you let them participate, readers will not only want to buy your books, they will want to reread your books over and over again, letting them become part of their life, seeing how their interpretations change over the years.